There are two things to keep in mind about appellation: First, it matters, even for the cheapest wines, because wines from different regions taste differently. A merlot that says California on the label is going to be different from a merlot that says Napa. Second, the system works like a pyramid – the country is at the base, and the various smaller classifications and sub-classifications sit on top of each other. Hence, a wine can be from California, Napa Valley and Stag’s Leap.
Appellation has been an important part of the wine business for centuries. The French have been using some form of it since the 16th century, and they invented the modern appellation system after World War I. It’s called Appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC. The AOC system guarantees that the wine in the bottle was made from grapes from the region listed on the bottle. Because, yes, some winemakers are less than scrupulous.
The AOC system is the model that most of the rest of the world uses for its appellation standards. The two best known are Italy’s DOCG and the U.S.’s American Viticultural Areas. The U.S. has 160 AVAs, and almost half of them are not in California.
These are the most important points to keep in mind about appellations:
• They guarantee region, but not quality. Just because a wine comes from a certified appellation doesn’t mean it’s any good. All it means is that the grapes come from that region.
• Appellations do guarantee that the wine reflects the terroir – weather, climate, soil, and winemaker preferences -- of that region. All of the wine from St. Emilion appellation, for example, is going to taste like it was made in St. Emilion.
• Some appellations imply quality, like Burgundy and Bordeaux, and thus the wine costs more. This is why some people think appellations guarantee quality. This is also why appellation is regulated by governments (in the U.S. by the Treasury’s Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau). No one in Stags Leap, which makes $100 wines, wants to see its name on wine made in areas with inferior grapes. It would be counterfeiting.
• Appellations are controversial, and the controversies are never ending. There are arguments about what criteria should be used to define an appellation or how big appellations should be. All of the arguing, in the end, revolves around money. Since some appellations command higher prices, some producers are always going to want to enlarge the size of the appellation. This increase the supply of grapes, which means they can more wine with the pricey appellation on the label.